I was sitting in the coffee shop one afternoon last week reading Karl Barth’s Prayer, when the barrista put on a CD with Paul Simon’s old standard, The Sound of Silence. It struck me as the perfect – and most perfectly ironic – soundtrack for my meditations, for whatever else we might think of prayer, it often sounds to us like nothing more than the sound of silence.
We can read Barth for the great neo-orthodox theologian’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, and even appreciate his simple yet profound conclusion that “wherever there is the grace of God, [humans] pray.” And yet we can still experience nothing but an unspeaking silence in prayer.
In the same way, we can follow Henri Nouwen and note the two times that Jesus invites his closest friends, Peter, James and John, to join him in the solitude of prayer – once on the mountaintop of transfiguration and then in the garden of betrayal. With Nouwen we can acknowledge that Christian prayer invites participation both in power and in weakness. In other words, in Anne Lamott’s words, prayer says “thank you” to God for the grace evident in creation and in our lives and it says “help me” to the God of the cross – speaking from our weakness and brokenness to a God who knows weakness and brokenness.
We can even begin to understand some of this, and yet still experience nothing but cold, empty silence, for like the disciples, all too often we just don’t know how to pray. I take some encouragement here from the simple fact that it took a long time for the disciples to come to this understanding themselves, and to ask Jesus for guidance. We’re not alone in our confusion here.
In our foundering, silence becomes an enveloping darkness whose only end is desolation and we are reduced to the nihilism that haunts Simon’s song. The silence of prayer invites us to listen for something else, but it is profoundly difficult.
It is difficult, in part, because prayer is radically countercultural. I don’t just mean that the call to prayer is an invitation to participate in a mystery that resists reduction to the modern scientific worldview, although that’s also true.
As James Washington puts it in the introduction to his moving collection of prayers from African American traditions,
“The denial of the reality of God has become fashionable among the affluent. Such secularity often belittles folk thought as if learning how to read and write in the halls of academe is a guarantor of our supposedly greater wisdom. But one need only observe the stars on a clear evening to register the unimaginativeness of such cynicism. Indeed, stargazing, a favorite pastime of those, such as unmolested children, who still cherish wonder and curiosity, offers awesome, transporting access to the utter beauty and terrifying grandeur of the universe. Such stargazing is pleasurable precisely because it defies the banal interests of our utilitarian age.
Prayer is an attempt to count the stars of our souls. Under its sacred canopy, an oratory of hope echoes the vast but immediate distances between who we are and who we want to be,” or, I would add, who God wants us to be.
More than that, though, prayer calls us to inaction. In the midst of a culture whose motto might well be, “don’t just sit there, do something,” the call to prayer says, “don’t just do something, sit there.”
In a culture that demands action, prayer demands inaction. In a culture that prizes individualism, independence, speaking out and utility above all else, prayer insists on community, interdependence, silence and a certain uselessness. As Nouwen puts it, “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.”
I cannot think of anything more radically opposed to contemporary American culture than suggesting that we seek to become useless, that we practice uselessness. Indeed, I cannot think of a definition of prayer more at odds with contemporary American understanding – or, better, misunderstanding – of prayer itself. For even in those places where prayer is accepted, it really is not often opposed to the crushing orthodoxy of rationalist pragmatism.
Instead, prayer is generally understood as yet another tool in the utility belt of life. When the tools of modernity fail – whether they are medical, financial, psycho-therapeutic, social-scientific or military-industrial – when the tools of modernity fail, we turn to a tool from the premodern world precisely for its presumed utility here and now.
The bumper-sticker, “life is hard – pray harder,” reflects this understanding of prayer. According to such a perspective, we pray in order that we might triumph over life, that we might conquer life’s challenges.
From such perspective, God plays two major yet shrinking roles in our world: placing stumbling blocks or tests before us and giving us assistance in overcoming them. These roles are major because they concern some of the most striking events of our lives – natural disasters, premature deaths, recovery from illness – yet they are shrinking because they concern only events which cannot yet easily be explained by rationalist pragmatism which, of course, gains deeper and deeper knowledge and understanding of such events every day and thus further delimits the scope of what belongs to God, in that world view.
What we really seek in prayer, in this understanding, is control. Thus, according to such a perspective, we pray in order that our will might be exercised upon creation.
I just don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he invited his disciples into a practice of prayer that says, “Abba, your will be done here and now in our midst as if the household of belovedness were already realized among us.”
Such a practice of prayer does not seek to give voice to our will, but rather seeks silence in order to listen for and allow God’s will to speak to and through our lives.
You see, the way we pray reflects deeply the way we imagine God. Theology matters.
Jesus clearly calls us into a deep and personal relationship with the God of abundant and steadfast grace and love, from whom one can anticipate gifts sufficient to the needs of the day. The prayer also invites us to participate in jubilee – in the forgiveness of sins and debts, and, moreover, invites us to live into the household of God in which human relations are no longer determined by economic standing and power. In this community of belovedness, all things and all people are made new.
The God made known to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is not a God who capriciously places stumbling blocks before us to make life more challenging. God is not the author of our pain and suffering. God does not bring us to the time of trial.
And yet, we do suffer. We do face times of trial and even persecution.
And sometimes, in the midst of such darkness, prayer yields only sounds of silence.
What then, when we want a divine puppet master who will pull all the right strings to deliver us from evil, from illness, from loneliness, from suffering, from death? What then, when we want a prayer that will direct the puppet master to deliver us not necessarily from evil but from the vicissitudes of embodied life? What then, when we want a prayer that conforms God to our will?
Against those all too human desires, the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples works instead to form and shape us according to God’s will. More than the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps these words should be known as the Disciples’ Prayer, for this prayer casts a vision of the Beloved Community into which we are called to live and work and die following Jesus more closely day by day. These words work to create in us an open and yearning place for God’s Spirit to dwell and work. Remember Jesus’ words? “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
This is a Pentecost prayer – it opens our hearts to the Spirit of the living God and creates new space for the wind of God to work within our lives.
Still, I want to ask, right with the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.” God, I want to know, what happens when I am enveloped by silence and it falls as a darkness that no light will penetrate, as a veil that no wind will remove, as a coldness that fire itself cannot warm? In other words, how can I open myself to the working words of prayer? How can I find a silence that speaks to me even as I find words to say, “thank you” or “help me” or “thy will be done in my life, here and now, as it is in your beloved community”?
If we are to make prayer a central practice of our common life, it must also be a central practice of our individual lives. For that to happen, for prayer to become a practice of our lives that shapes and forms us as disciples, we need to find some answers to the disciples’ question: how do we pray?